Murtha remembered for House, Marine, family roles
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JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- John P. Murtha, the gruff and powerful congressman who controlled billions of defense dollars and who became a national lightning rod when he turned against the Iraq War, was remembered today by family, military and the woman he helped make Speaker of the House.
"Patriot, champion, hero, giant -- Jack Murtha. We will never see his like again," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Mourners at the Westmont Presbyterian Church here included more than 50 members of Congress, some of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former President Bill Clinton.
The funeral began with a procession of 14 members of the state's House delegation and Sen. Robert P. Casey, Jr. acting as honorary pallbearers. A 17-piece Marine band played the hymn "Faith of Our Fathers" and 60 more Marines stood at attention as the casket of the Democratic powerbroker was carried into the church.
Father William George, a Jesuit priest and president of Georgetown Preparatory School, read from the Book of Ecclesiastes, the portion about how for everything there is a season and time.
"The writer of Ecclesiastes could also have written 'a time to make law and a time to change laws,' " Father George said, adding, wryly, "and, yes, a time to earmark."
A roll of laughter filled the sanctuary where colleagues were preparing to bury the man who came to be celebrated and sometimes reviled as "The King of the Earmarks."
Mr. Murtha, 77, died Feb. 8 from complications from surgery.
Today, in the church, and in overflow areas where people watched a live feed of the funeral, people remembered Mr. Murtha as a courageous leader, whether on the field of combat in Vietnam or the scene of battle inside an increasingly rancorous Congress.
"I know him as Dad and as my buddy and my pal," Mr. Murtha's daughter, Donna, a teacher in Virginia, told the mourners. "He would talk to me every day. We did not talk about politics we did not talk about economics. We talked about teaching."
Her voice cracking, she talked of her parents' 50-year marriage, of her father's love of gardening, of his sometimes comical battle to outwit the squirrels that came to dine at his bird feeder.
"He lived by the motto 'One Man Makes a Difference,' " Ms. Murtha said. "We love you, Dad."
The dignitaries gathered in a town where Mr. Murtha's political reach touched almost every corner.
Speaker Pelosi flew with a delegation into the John P. Murtha Airport and traveled past defense plants the congressman brought into his hometown as chairman of the Appropriations defense subcommittee.
Other members, such as Mike Doyle of Allegheny County and Mr. Casey rode to the church on transit authority buses the late congressman provided the money to buy.
Before the service, many in the Pennsylvania delegation wondered what would happen now that its longest serving member, capable of directing billions of dollars to his state and district, was gone.
"We've lost our 800-pound gorilla," said Mr. Doyle, a close ally of Mr. Murtha's.
"It's incalculable, the loss," added Rep. Jason Altmire, also of Allegheny County.
Mr. Doyle organized an Irish wake last night in honor of Mr. Murtha, a fairly jolly affair where a few sipped Middleton's Irish Whiskey, a bottle brought along by an old Murtha friend, lobbyist and former defense department budget liaison Dan Cunningham.
Colleagues swapped stories about the late congressman, his blunt-as-a-hammer style and startling grasp of detail.
One, Dennis Kucinich, D-Cleveland, remembered Mr. Murtha's decision five years ago to publicly oppose the Iraq War and call for U.S. withdrawal.
"We came to the conclusion that if Jack Murtha were to express any concerns he had, it would change all," Mr. Kucinich said. When Mr. Murtha, a longtime Democratic hawk, publicly declared the war unwinnable, it sparked a sometimes raucous House debate and energized political forces on both sides of the question.
Ms. Pelosi, in her remarks during the service, said she could recall Mr. Murtha being cheered in airports after he came out against the war, but she cautioned that he never confused the cause of ending war with a criticism of the troops fighting it.
"In his opposition, though, he taught us all to make a distinction between the war and the warrior," she said.
It was sometimes more complicated, though. At the time of his death, Mr. Murtha was the target of sometimes bitter attacks for his public criticism of a squad of Marines accused -- and later cleared -- of criminal conduct in connection with the deaths of civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha.
In his remarks, Gen. James Conway, the Marine Corps commandant, focused on Mr. Murtha's war service and his support for military projects. He recounted how Mr. Murtha was feeling guilty while "majoring in football and basketball" at Washington & Jefferson College during the Korean War and decided to enlist in the Marines. Although he didn't see action in that conflict, he did serve with distinction in Vietnam.
When he first met Mr. Murtha, Gen. Conway said, the congressman told him "you can't have everything," but that he'd get funding for the two or three things most needed.
So Gen. Conway concluded it was a good thing to have an ex-Marine holding the defense purse strings. But, to laughter, Gen. Conway added that he later found out Mr. Murtha said the same thing to all the service chiefs.
As the service concluded, it marked the starting point for jockeying for nominations to fill the congressman's unexpired term. Party insiders, including some in the House, have increasingly suggested that the Democratic nomination might be offered to Joyce Murtha, the congressman's widow.
Whoever succeeds him, they agreed, will be unlikely to carry the same capacity to steer earmarks to the district in the way Mr. Murtha did. As chairman of the defense subcommittee, he directed billions of dollars in federal contracts to local firms, while also prevailing on major defense contractors to open plants here.
Former congressman Joseph Hoeffel, now a Montgomery County commissioner, addressed that point to reporters in remarks before entering the church.
Mr. Hoeffel said Mr. Murtha showed Johnstown how to "fight back" from floods and economic downturns and said it's now time for other people to carry on the fight.
"I'm sure there are many people who are willing to step forward."
Several of Mr. Murtha's constituents gathered in the snow across the street from the church. Some said they were concerned about the future of the area with the passing of Mr. Murtha, who had represented the district since 1974.
But one of them, John Yerger of Johnstown, said, "I don't think that this is the end of Johnstown or this community in any shape or form. People have underestimated this community before."
In addition to Mr. Clinton, CIA Director Leon Panetta, President Barack Obama's chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and other cabinet members were in attendance.
First Published February 16, 2010 10:24 am